The Praiseworthy One

The Prophet Muhammad in Islamic Texts and Images

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Christiane Gruber
  • Bloomington, IN: 
    Indiana University Press
    , January
     448 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Christiane Gruber’s The Praiseworthy One is a long-needed book. The Muhammad cartoons crisis in 2005-2006 and the tragic attack on the Charlie Hebdo editorial board in Paris in 2015 have spread the idea that the non-representation of the Prophet is an Islamic religious commandment. Starting from the first known paintings in Turkish-Persian manuscripts of the 13th century and culminating in present-day non-figural evocations of the Prophet’s presence, Christiane Gruber achieves a remarkable cultural history on a highly disputed topic, tracing the development of the complex relation Muslims built along the centuries toward the representation, figural or not, of their Prophet.

The author first explores the reasons why images of the Prophet appear in the 13th century. By integrating features of the Persian tradition of royal portraits, artists show Muhammad as a ruler-king, legitimizing the newly converted Mongol dynasties that ruled over Iran and Iraq. Muhammad is surrounded by the four right-guided caliphs, affirming thus a Sunni view (45, fig. 1.6). From the 14th century onward, episodes of the Prophet’s life are illustrated in Persian and Ottoman manuscripts. The choice has a political and religious signification: Muhammad is portrayed besides Jesus, as the last prophet in the monotheist line. Scenes showing his birth, are inspired by Christian—mainly Armenian—prototypes. Muhammad’s recognition by the Christian monk Bahira and the Battle of Badr, are other favorite themes.

Muhammad’s ascension to heaven, or mi‘raj (125, fig. 2.17), a motif that will  become very popular in the Islamic world and play a central role in Sufi practices, is illustrated for the first time in Tabriz in 1314. While in older paintings Muhammad is represented with his full face and body, riding on Buraq, the heavenly mount with a woman’s face, in later miniatures his facial features are covered with a white veil and his head is surrounded by a flaming nimbus (167, fig. 3.8). This has less to do with a prohibition of representation, Gruber shows, than with a mystical understanding relating the Prophet to the unknown, symbolized by the covered face. Only those who have a link with heavenly knowledge wear a face veil: in paintings with a Shiite orientation, Ali’s face is also veiled (189, fig. 3.20).

Safavid manuscripts develop a new, Shiite iconography, by choosing episodes significant to the Imami creed, like the designation of Ali as successor at the pond of Khumm (220, fig. 4.8). They also stress Ali’s fundamental role in the beginnings of Islam, namely as a strong warrior at the battle of Badr or at Khaybar (235, fig. 4.15).

Ottoman representations of the Prophet were initially inspired by the Persian figural tradition (252, fig. 5.1). While the facial veil is kept, more than often the head is replaced by a flaming nimbus. This is consistent with the concept of nur Muhammad, the Prophet’s light. The Siyer-i Nebi, based on Darir’s 14th-century Turkish biography of the Prophet, is often illustrated , as are  the Prophet’s relics  that became an object of power legitimation and veneration. From the 18th century on, the Prophet’s mantle, his footprint or sandal (282, fig. 5.12), started to be painted in manuscripts or on cards, representing thus the Prophet through his traces, rather than in his bodily appearance. Although not worshipped, those images were kissed and rubbed, in order to obtain a blessing (baraka).

The verbal description of the Prophet, the hilye, found its specific representational features. Surrounded by the encircled names of the four right-guides caliphs, maybe inspired by the scheme of the four evangelists, it gave origin to depictions of the Prophet’s genealogical tree (293, fig. 5.19).

One could argue that those traditions disappeared with the introduction of the printing press. This is only partially true. In Iran, the figural tradition of prophetic representations lasted through the 19th century. A new iconography appeared, often based on European models, resulting in Moses-like representations of Muhammad (319, fig. 6.3; 321, fig. 6.4).

Images of the Prophet’s family, on different media, are also very popular in Iran. In present-day Turkey, where the Prophet is not bodily represented, a vast panoply of objects with Muhammad’s attributes is produced, including the Prophet’s “ID,” hats with the sandal print, medallions with the seal of the prophet. This “logo,” based on handwritten letters attributed to the Prophet, probably a 19th-century forgery (357), has been reproduced on various objects in Turkey, before landing on the banners of ISIS.

In her excellent, well-documented and richly illustrated book, Gruber succeeds in demonstrating the complexity and diversity of Islamic attitudes toward images of the Prophet since more than eight centuries. Even though the figural tradition today mostly occurs in Iran, the representation of the Prophet indirectly, through his relics or his name written in calligraphy, is still part of Sunni piety.

Some of these forms go back to the earliest representations. A particular, easily identifiable iconography—sometimes borrowed from other representational traditions and adapted to the peculiar Islamic context—developed for some popular themes and, although modified, still exists today. Gruber clearly states that Muslims do not worship these representations, but she highlights the Muslim need to materialize the Prophet’s presence, be it in bodily or non-bodily shape. A question of central importance to art historians, historians, and historians of religion for whom this book will constitute a reference work.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Silvia Naef is a Professor at the University of Geneva.

Date of Review: 
April 21, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Christiane Gruber is Professor of Islamic Art at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Her primary field of research is Islamic painting, in particular illustrated books of the Prophet Muhammad's ascension.


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